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Gunter Grass defends work after poem provokes Israeli fury

Nobel literature laureate is banned from entering Israel as officials accuse the German writer of fomenting anti-semitism in his poem What Must Be Said.

Gunter Grass at his home in Behlendorf, Germany, last week. He hit back at critics the poem, which accuses Israel of threatening world peace.
Gunter Grass at his home in Behlendorf, Germany, last week. He hit back at critics the poem, which accuses Israel of threatening world peace.

TEL AVIV // It was just a poem, but it had an explosive effect.

The controversial work publicised last week by the German Nobel literature laureate Gunter Grass warned about a possible Israeli strike on Iran and suggested it could wipe out the Iranian people.

The poem has cast light on concern that Israel might use military action to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons and has reawakened Israeli bitterness over the Nazi Holocaust.

Israeli officials were furious. The interior minister, Eli Yishai, banned Mr Grass from entering the country, the far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, accused the author of trying to spark a second Holocaust and other officials criticised Mr Grass for fomenting anti-semitism.

However, some commentators have criticised the Israeli reaction as panic and reflecting the increasing right-wing shift of the country's electorate. They have also accused officials of taking advantage of the incident to justify more aggressive action against Iran's nuclear ambitions and trying to boost public support by taking advantage of resentment about the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed during the Second World War.

"Several nerves were touched here at once," said Shimon Redlich, an Israeli historian and Holocaust survivor. "You have the Holocaust, nuclear weapons and the hint of mass annihilation, issues that are all widespread in Israeli public debate. All these are extremely sensitive for Israelis and can be easily manipulated by politicians."

In his poem, which he called What Must Be Said, published in the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the 84-year-old author wrote he was worried a nuclear-armed Israel could "annihilate the Iranian people" with a "first strike".

He accused Israel of harbouring a "growing nuclear potential" that is "beyond control because no inspection is available". He suggested that Germany, by supplying the Israeli military with submarines, may become an accomplice to an Israeli attack on Iran.

He also charged that Israel's undeclared nuclear power endangers "the already fragile world peace".

Mr Grass's poem struck an especially controversial note because of his past.

The writer, a prominent left-wing activist who for decades has publicly advocated Germany face up to its Nazi past, shocked his supporters in 2006 when he conceded that he had been a member of Adolf Hitler's notorious Waffen SS when he was 17. Many have since criticised him for lying about his ties to the Nazi regime and claimed his late confession had substantially weakened his moral authority among Germans.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, on Thursday called the poem "shameful" and said it was "Iran, not Israel that presents a threat to world peace and security … and threatens the destruction of other states".

Mr Lieberman has been even more blunt, writing on his Facebook page that the "German author's words express the cynicism of some 'intellectuals' in the West who … would wish to sacrifice the Jews for a second time on the altar of anti-semitic lunatics".

Mr Netanyahu and other Israel officials have often mentioned the Holocaust and Israeli fears about Jews being targeted again on a mass scale as a strong reason for curbing the nuclear ambitions of Iran, viewed by Israel as an arch enemy.

"Manipulating the memory of the Holocaust helps them," said Mr Redlich. "If a nation continues to be a victim, all kinds of immoral deeds can be condoned, such as towards Palestinians."

According to Mr Redlich, most Israelis support the interior minister's decision to declare Mr Grass persona non grata. "Israel as a whole is quite a conservative, nationalistic and right-wing society, so anybody who criticises the country immediately becomes the enemy," he said.

Some other commentators criticised Israel for showing intolerance by banning Mr Grass. "Grass did no more than write a poem," said an editorial in the newspaper Haaretz yesterday. "The state of Israel reacted with hysteria. It seems at issue is less an undesirable person than an undesirable policy."

The poem has also spurred a backlash in Germany, where attacks on Israel are controversial because of the country's Nazi past.

Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister, told a German newspaper that "putting Israel and Iran on the same moral level is not ingenious but absurd".

Mr Grass has defended his poem, suggesting it was aimed at the current Israeli government rather than at Israeli society as a whole.

"I have often supported Israel, I have often visited the country and want the country to exist and at least find peace with its neighbours," he told Der Spiegel.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae